How Are We Doing?

New tools are needed to measure progress toward critical goals.

New tools are needed to measure progress toward critical goals.

Americans love to keep score, as the new baseball season reminds us. There's a statistic for everything in baseball, and entire fantasy leagues are based on players' stats.

But as to the state of the nation, American score keeping is woefully short. We know little about how well we are doing on such vital goals as improving education and the environment. Nor do we know with any precision whether government programs are even helping with such high-priority matters. Efforts to measure government's performance have been on the upswing for 15 years. Most have been inward-looking, measuring agencies' administrative systems, not programmatic outcomes. That's been true both of federal efforts like the President's Management Agenda (with its red, yellow and green ratings), and of private ratings programs such as the foundation-funded Government Performance Project-in which Government Executive participated for five years.

First-rate agency administrative systems certainly are important to delivering good results in federal programs. But still, the connection to outcomes the public seeks remains tenuous.

To its credit, the Bush administration developed a new approach: rating federal programs on their performance in delivering the results they promise. The Office of Management and Budget's Performance Assessment Rating Tool won the prestigious Innovations in American Government award from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2005. The PART team led by OMB's Robert Shea has evaluated hundreds of programs-132 in the field of education alone, according to the PART Web site, www.Expectmore.gov.

The Web site has for the first time made detailed program performance information available to the public. But as the sheer number of education programs suggests, the site cannot offer a good feel for the overall impact of federal endeavors that often overlap and are only part of a larger effort encompassing other levels of government and private sector groups.

In education, for example, the rating efforts do not say much about what really counts: the achievements of students. Just how little we know was shockingly illustrated in a March New York Times story reporting that state governments, struggling with the No Child Left Behind Act's punitive provisions, have been overstating high school graduation rates by 20 percentage points or more. "As a result," the Times reported, "federal figures obscure a dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the 1 million American students who start 9th grade each year graduate four years later."

The public also cares a lot about the quality of the environment, and here again, comprehensive reliable measurements are scarce. A recent report from the National Academy of Public Administration titled "A Green Compass" remarked on the complex networks of stakeholders needed to develop a credible system of indicators whose scope would treat both national and local environmental conditions.

Yet hope is on the horizon, in the growing movement to develop indicators of societal well-being in the United States. The NAPA environment project, a joint NAPA-National Academy of Sciences study on the nation's fiscal problems and the work of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, housed at the Council for Excellence in Government, are three examples. Most promising is the new, foundation-supported State of the USA project that's "seizing an unprecedented opportunity to empower and inform the public by building a system of key national indicators to measure the country's progress," as its Web site says. SUSA has a first-class board of directors and a president, Christopher Hoenig, who has been an accomplished analyst and innovator in government and the private sector. When the SUSA indicators go live next year, they will give us tools to begin understanding how we might redirect government programs toward critical national goals.

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